Every year looters and smugglers make millions selling cultural property and artifacts on the black market.
The federal government has hundreds of agents working like Indiana Jones to find and return stolen relics.
In early December, several ancient artifacts were returned to Egypt by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in a special repatriation ceremony attended by the country’s foreign minister.
Among the items was a 3,000-year-old mummified hand discovered at the Los Angeles airport and being passed off as a sci-fi movie prop. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents from ICE also seized a child’s sarcophagus from a garage in Brooklyn, New York. At the repatriation, agents also returned a panel from a woman’s sarcophagus and a linen mummy shroud.
Ray Villanueva oversees the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program at ICE. A team of 400 agents around the world investigates the theft and trafficking of the items. Sometimes artifacts are found in the hands of oblivious collectors and museums. Sometimes, they’re in the hands of tomb raiders.
“There’s individuals going to jail. They know they were stolen in Egypt,” said Villanueva about people who smuggle looted artifacts into the U.S. “They’re bringing that through the black market to be sold in auctions.”
Since 2007, ICE has returned almost 8,000 items to more than 30 countries.
"It's not like it was 20 or 30 years ago when there was nobody watching at all about the trade in antiquities,” said National Geographic archaeologist Fred Hiebert. “Today, we're sending the message around that people are watching."
Hiebert helps train HSI agents how to identify and handle relics and ancient art. He has taught them how to sort the artifacts, how to photograph them correctly and how to describe them.
The agents' work leads not only to finding long-lost antiquities. In the recent Egyptian case, it led to smugglers, money launderers and buyers, as well as two criminal convictions.
But it’s not always about prosecution, Villanueva said. Sometimes it’s about returning priceless works to their home countries to reinforce diplomatic relationships and to give the public the opportunity to enjoy a glimpse into a shared past or foreign culture.